Oy vey! Freeman Dyson pronounces individual selection to be “fashionable dogma”

I don’t have a particular animus about scientists in one field weighing in on another, but they must have some degree of expertise to do so!  Here’s an example of someone making a pronouncement that they’re clearly unqualified to make.

Sadly, it’s the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, known mainly for his work on quantum electrodynamics but also in many other areas, including topology. He’s also religious, describing himself as a “nondenominational Christian), and won the Templeton Prize in 2000.

Now, near the end of his career (Dyson is 89), he’s decided, like E. O. Wilson, that “individual selection” (natural selection changing populations by the differential reproduction of individuals) is a nonstarter compared to “group selection” (the evolutionary transformation of species by the differential reproduction and survival of entire populations).

Dyson works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and in its online publication he’s published a piece called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” The name refers to a tactical game in which two prisoners maneuver, without mutual contact, to get the best deal for themselves. Under some conditions this game, when played repeatedly by the same two individuals, leads to the “evolution” of cooperative strategies.  From that evolutionists have concluded that cooperation could evolve along those lines: when individuals know each other and interact repeatedly, their best strategy can be “tit for tat,” i.e., start off by being nice to the other person and then keep being nice until he turns uncooperative.  This might explain the evolution of cooperation in small bands of humans, the conditions under which our ancestors lived during most of their evolution.

Dyson’s own work shows that this answer is not so simple, and in his models the game doesn’t necessarily produce cooperation. That result is controversial, and since I don’t really understand the controversy I’ll shut up about that. What I want to mention is that Dyson, while describing this result, gets in some licks against individual selection:

I am interested in a bigger question, the relative importance of individual selection and group selection in the evolution of cooperation. Individual selection is caused by the death of individuals who make bad choices. Group selection is caused by the extinction of tribes or species that make bad choices. The fashionable dogma among biologists says that individual selection is the driving force of evolution and group selection is negligible. Richard Dawkins is especially vehement in his denial of group selection. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a model of evolution by individual selection only. That is why believers in the fashionable dogma take the model seriously.

Not really; it’s a model of behavior, not evolution.  To make it a model of evolution, you have to have a model of how genes cause behavior, and behaviors like these are undoubtedly caused not by single genes, but evolve by the fixation of several to many genes. Evolutionists have been interested in the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma” simply because under some circumstances it produces a “stable evolutionary strategy” of cooperation, showing that at least cooperative behavior could be adaptive. But that’s a long way from showing that the strategy could evolve from genetic precursors.

Now that may have been done already (this isn’t my field), but I am confident (based on nothing more than my gut feeling) that in a small group of individuals that can recognize each other and have memories and sophisticated thinking, one could evolve a strategy of cooperation very easily, and “altruistic” behaviors where you sacrifice some short-term advantage for the long-term advantage of cooperation.

At any rate, here’s Dyson’s two arguments against individual selection in general:

I do not believe the fashionable dogma. Here is my argument to show that group selection is important. Imagine Alice and Bob to be two dodoes on the island of Mauritius before the arrival of human predators. Alice has superior individual fitness and has produced many grandchildren. Bob is individually unfit and unfertile. Then the predators arrive with their guns and massacre the progeny indiscriminately. The fitness of Alice and Bob is reduced to zero because their species made a bad choice long ago, putting on weight and forgetting how to fly. I do not take the Prisoner’s Dilemma seriously as a model of evolution of cooperation, because I consider it likely that groups lacking cooperation are like dodoes, losing the battle for survival collectively rather than individually.

What a bizarre example? How often is an entire population extirpated? And what could those dodos have done, via cooperation or “altruism”, to prevent their massacre?  What we need are tons of examples of animals whose populations go extinct because they’re not as cooperative as other populations.  Of course one can make up such ludicrous scenarios, but are they realistic? Not this one! For one thing, it doesn’t have anything to do with cooperation, or, indeed, the evolution of any trait except flightlessness.  We don’t need such wildly speculative and unrealistic scenarios; we need data.  And don’t forget the formidable theoretical arguments against group selection: once cooperation evolves via differential reproduction of groups (while being disadvantageous to individuals), it’s unstable, and a mutant “uncooperative” individual will begin to spread its genes.  Also, groups turn over far less often than individuals, so the process is inefficient and unlikely.

Finally, as Steve Pinker has noted, sometimes populations succeed because they’re not “altruistic”: in warfare, it might be the most vicious groups, those least likely to coddle their own weak or sickly and most likely to slaughter others, who succeed. The Spartans may have been like this: cooperative as a group in killing others, but not so nice to each other.

Dyson continues:

Another reason why I believe in group selection is that I have vivid memories of childhood in England. For a child in England, there are two special days in the year, Christmas and Guy Fawkes. Christmas is the festival of love and forgiveness. Guy Fawkes is the festival of hate and punishment. Guy Fawkes was the notorious traitor who tried to blow up the King and Parliament with gunpowder in 1605. He was gruesomely tortured before he was burnt. Children celebrate his demise with big bonfires and fireworks. They look forward to Guy Fawkes more than to Christmas. Christmas is boring but Guy Fawkes is fun. Humans are born with genes that reward us with intense pleasure when we punish traitors. Punishing traitors is the group’s way of enforcing cooperation. We evolved cooperation by evolving a congenital delight in punishing sinners. The Prisoner’s Dilemma did not have much to do with it.

That’s just insane.  Yes, of course we want “traitors” punished—not just political ones but those who betray us, our family, and our social norms.  And I think some of that feeling—if not most of it—comes from evolution. But how does that implicate group rather than individual selection? After all, research shows that people are much more likely to want retribution against “traitors” who harm them or their families rather than those who harm society at large. That result is consonant with the evolution of retribution by individual selection (I count kin selection here), but not with group selection.  Who would you feel more animus toward: someone who robs you or your children, or someone who robs an anonymous person in Peoria? The former, of course!  If that feeling of “treason” evolved by group selection, there should be no difference in how you feel.

And pray tell us, Dr. Dyson, how can group selection rather than the “fashionable dogma” of individual selection explain things like mimicry, the blowholes of whales, or the fleetness of cheetahs.  Did some populations of proto-whales go extinct because their blowholes weren’t high enough on their foreheads, so they all drowned?

I don’t like imputing this kind of mush-brained thinking to age: after all, plenty of old people are still sharp as a tack, and the Argument from Age is an ad hominem. Rather, I think Dyson has simply overreached himself here, in the same way he overreaches when he pronounces on God.  At any rate, he needs a good chat with Richard Dawkins.

h/t: Callum


  1. Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Mr. Dyson is wrong about Xmas and Bonfire Night too. I’m an Englishman, and in no way does anyone I have ever met prefer the latter to the former. Small point, but shows the sloppiness at work.

    • Fraser JH
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Yup, I call shenanigans there too. It seems a bit of a stretch in order to buttress a flailing argument. I think calling it a festival of “hate and punishment” is probably a little wide of the mark too. In that children aren’t celebrating the punishment of Guy Fawkes, but rather enjoying fireworks and bonfires, rarities in the UK.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Like most people, I loved fireworks from an early age, and I only learned about the story behind Guy Fawkes Night as a teenager. Bonfire night is a way of cheering us all up as the long nights settle in. nothing whatsoever to do with “Hate & Punishment”.

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          It’s close to Hallowe’en, and appropriated some of the pagan trappings (the bonfires) associated with Samhain, a festival marking the beginning of winter and the Celtic new year.


          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

            Yes, that makes sense. Besides, the proximity to Hallowe’en was handy for us kids – we’d go out “guising” (Scots for Trick or Treat, without the protection racket element) and use the money raised to buy fireworks…

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          What rubbish Dyson spouts. As another Brit I can confirm that kids prefer getting stuff on Christmas morning rather than watching fireworks on bonfire night. And I would be surprised that anyone actually stops to consider the symbolism, or any residual hate of bonfire night; it’s more about the spectacle, the fun of a big fire, ooh-ahh fireworks, barbecued sausages and baked potatoes.

          • John Perkins
            Posted December 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            Another ex-pat Brit here – almost Dyson’s age.
            Christmas for me and all my chums was tons better than Bonfire Night. The best thing about Bonfire Night was the night before – Mischief Night. We didn’t know Halloween existed – this was pre-war Yorkshire in the mid-30s – the big mischief was removing the front gates from all the houses in the street, putting them in a pile together somewhere in the neighbourhood – that was it. Big Deal !

      • Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

        shenanigans it is. There’s another big holiday in the UK, of course. That other one where children celebrate torture and death. We usually call it Easter.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

          I meant to say that OF COURSE children don’t celebrate the torture and death in either case. They celebrate the opportunity to have fun. I was pointing out Dyson’s silliness.

          My sarcasm might have been unclear.

  2. Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I’m really getting tired of this. Whether its creationists or physicists or biologists- thinking that the tenets of evolutionary biology are nothing more than philosphical musings of a handfull of people sitting around coffee shops.
    Someone, like JAC, needs to put together a list of papers going back however many decades, that presents the scientific case for topics in EB. I dont know how long the minimum list would be – 60-100 papers?
    Then when people like Dyson make such comments and its clear they’re unfamiliar with the list, their comments could be dismissed out of hand.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure it is on TalkOrigins already.

      Just shows the quality of Dyson’s & Shapiro’s arguments.

  3. Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I think smart people don’t get altruism as it evolved via individual selection because they forget their rudimentary genetics. They fall into the easy snare of postulating group selection to explain why a maladaptive trait like altruism could evolve. But we have no difficulty explaining other maladaptive traits like sickle cell disease which benefits the individual who inherits a single allele. The same idea could very well be postulated for altruism. Inheritance of one allele for altruism might not effect behavior very much; inheritance of two alleles for altruism might cause selfless, detrimental behavior. But the gene thrives because the allele is successfully ensconced in selfish individuals (with one copy) surrounded by some individuals who help out those around them; because the heterozygotes survive to reproduction better than those in populations where the allele does not exist, the gene will take off. All too often people assume that traits are inherited en bloc and forget that heterozygous advantage can have a profound effect on the prevalence of seemingly maladaptive traits. But we certainly don’t need group selection to explain the phenomenon.

  4. Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    “Who would you feel more animus toward: someone who robs you or your children, or someone who robs an anonymous person in Peoria? The former, of course! If that feeling of “treason” evolved by group selection, there should be no difference in how you feel.”

    Couldn’t he retort that if the feeling of treason evolved by kin selection, you shouldn’t feel animus against the anonymous thief in Peoria?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Why would a free-rider effect be ruled out? The problem is that there isn’t equal animus, not that there is anonymous animus among animals.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Sure, there could be a free-rider effect. I am not arguing in favor of group selection. I am just saying that if we are arguing about animus, the state of affairs described by Jerry in his thief example could equally well be used to support (though not prove) the idea of group selection.

        Also, has anybody really claimed that that the animus should be exactly equal against kin-robbers and Peorian robbers? Surely group selection, if it existed, would just add a layer to kin selection, not replace kin selection.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          D. S. and E. O. Wilson, Tarnita, and Martin Nowak do not agree that group selection just adds a layer to kin selection. They argue that kin selection does virtually nothing in evolution, and that things like altruism are the products of group selection. The cases in which group selection is most oonvincing are those in which one can’t envision individual selection promoting the evolution of a trait because it’s actually disadvantageous to individuals.

          So yes, the new proponents of group selection largely argue that it is replacing kin selection AND individual selection for many human traits. See Ed Wilson’s new book on this.

          • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

            Wow, that does seem crazy. I hadn’t read Wilson’s new book (largely because of your previous strong criticisms of his thinking).

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      A retort but not a rebuttal; he’s still left with the weaker argument.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    The fuzzy thinking of Dyson is astonishing. He uses a distant childhood memory to make a pronouncement that all children prefer something and then extends it to a general theory. This is extremely ludicrous.

  6. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    As a UK subject I’d point out that Bonfire Night is enjoyed by children too young to know who Guy Fawkes was.

    Plus in recent years there has been a big move in the direction of fewer family bonfires and towards more organised events. If Bonfire Night was all about punishing traitors (or punishing Roman Catholicism) you would have thought family organised events to be more satisfying than larger anonymous social events.

    And as for Group Selection… convince me that there is a mechanism which is not identical to natural selection through individuals. I expect that some groups are ‘selected against’, but unless the nature of the selection can be inherited it’s just history and environment in the driving seat.

  7. Greg
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “And pray tell us, Dr. Dyson, how group selection rather than the “fashionable dogma” of individual selection can explain things like mimicry, the blowholes of whales, or the fleetness of cheetahs.”

    I think that you are attributing positions to Freeman Dyson that he doesn’t espouse. In the essay, Dyson doesn’t seem to be doubting the power of individual selection on these traits. He is talking specifically about the evolution of cooperation, and whether that could have evolved through individual vs. group selection.

    Dyson’s essay is bad, but it’s useful to observe that his objection to individual selection is limited to cooperative behaviors.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      I’m not so sure about that. His overall stand on the question is rendered ambiguous by this statement:

      The fashionable dogma among biologists says that individual selection is the driving force of evolution and group selection is negligible.

      Really? Is that fashionable dogma only for the evolution of cooperation, but a reasonable view for everything else? If so, he fails to draw that distinction.

      • Greg
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good point. I now notice that my interpretation of Dyson’s argument was pretty charitable. In order to avoid the charge of rejecting individual selection, he should have prefaced his criticism by remarking on the success of individual selection on the evolution of all those traits you mention.

  8. MKray
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I loved Guy Fawkes night because of the fireworks!! At 13, I put on a display of home made fireworks, in our back garden, for the family. No Xmas pleased me as much!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Some kids grow up to be pyrotechnicians, but it’s not a majority.

      • Marvol
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        I think his point is that he enjoyed it not for the punishment of traitors but for the excitement of fireworks, contra Dyson.

  9. Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I don’t see an argument for group selection in any of the paragraphs quoted. As far as punishing traitors goes, isn’t that just an extension of “tit for tat”. One reason tit for tat works is that you only have one way to punish the defector, by defecting yourself. Thus the future value of forgiveness outweighs the future risk.

    Suppose you had a more realistic set of alternatives. Minor transgressions should be met in kind and forgiven. Worse transgressions should be punished and then you should find alternative partners. Let someone else find out if the punishment worked. Extreme transgressions require not allowing others to have to take the risk.

    Anyway, that is my hypothesis and I think it works through individual selection, no group selection required. I wonder if that could be modeled easily enough to give it a try.

  10. HaggisForBrains
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    based on nothing more than my gut feeling

    I think you just strayed into Ben Goren’s territory there ;-).

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      That would only be if he actually started fondling the guts… 😉

      • J.J E.
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        Gut “feeling”?

        • MadScientist
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, why not – the oracles of the Sabines and the Romans did it all the time. It would be quite a few centuries before they were introduced to tea, so they couldn’t do their divining with tea leaves, could they?

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            Then the Americans invented tea bags, so now we’re back to fondling guts.

  11. colluvial
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    “They fall into the easy snare of postulating group selection to explain why a maladaptive trait like altruism could evolve.”

    There is nothing maladaptive about altruism in a species that can remember who it was that enhanced its survival. A vampire bat that shares blood with a comrade on a night when it wasn’t successful on its own, is establishing a relationship where reciprocation may one day save its life. No need to posit group selection.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Dyson dabbles in everything, sometimes brilliantly so, but always unchecked it seems. He has made some proposals on abiogenesis, that will be interesting to look at on a rainy day.

    As for the game theory advance, I haven’t looked at it yet. The urgency diminished when outside analysis claims that the strategy used to fool cooperative strategies, or more generically any set strategy, can itself be fooled. (Well, duh!)

    If so there is a cooperative strategy response, and the original analysis re evolution is saved.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      “Can itself be fooled” – by the same means, that is.

    • Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      One of my favorite books is about Dyson. It’s called “The Starship and the Canoe” by Kenneth Brower. It’s about the relationship between Dyson and his somewhat estranged son, and about grand outside-the-box thinking (which, of course, can sometimes be wildly wrong). Dyson had actually designed and begun testing prototypes of a city-sized starship powered by atomic bombs exploding underneath it. His son had the same kind of grand dreams, but in a totally different direction, exploring our own natural world in a big ocean-going canoe (and he actually managed to realize some of this dream). The son ended up living in a treehouse on Vancouver Island.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Just looked it up on Amazon–you can get a new hardback copy for a mere $492.34!

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 9, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        It’s a considerable stretch to call Orion a starship. It could have made human missions to the outer planets feasible in the 1970s, but interstellar flight is many orders of magnitude more difficult.

        George Dyson (the son) has written a book called Project Orion about the history of the project.

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          I hadn’t known about George’s book, thanks for the tip. I think many of the challenges of starship-building will be ecological rather than physical…

        • Gary W
          Posted December 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          Project Orion is excellent. It was like a mini-Manhattan Project. It’s amazing how bold and ambitious the project was. They were making serious plans in the early 60s for human missions to the moons of Saturn by 1970! Their designs included a ship half a kilometer in diameter with a mass of 8 million tons.

          • Posted December 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            Yes, Dyson thought BIG. So did he son, in the opposite direction. Imagine wandering and exploring the oceans alone in a giant canoe!

  13. Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Arguments on this topic often seem to conflate biological evolution (that is, the increased preponderance for a genetic disposition for cooperative behaviour) with social evolution (that is, increasing realisation/acceptance of learned cooperative behaviour). Is it clear from the scientific literature on altruism what the balance between nature and nurture is? Are the mechanisms in play in each case necessarily similar?


  14. Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    The very definition of altruism according to Webster is “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” One can argue whether any behavior is truly altruistic in that the behavior often benefits its genetic heritage (kin selection) or benefits itself in cooperative selfishness (reciprocal altruism). However, I would argue that even patently detrimental traits can flourish through heterozygous advantage and I am not aware that this argument has been put forward for altruism. The problem for the bat is to be the first to share amongst a host of nonsharers. How does the behavior begin? I can explain it through heterozygous advantage. Otherwise it requires the behavior to arise simultaneously in unrelated individuals to be truly ascribed as altruism.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      In Biology (or other technical fields), it’s probably not helpful to take definitions of technical terms from Webster. Just sayin’

  15. Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    It’s the “dual” instead of individual cyclone action. Post hoc ergo vacuum hoc.

    I’ve always suspected Dyson retained a tendentious payor source via his allegiance with global warming inactivism.

  16. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Freeman Dyson seems to enjoy being an iconclast. That’s not such a bad thing when one is smart and well-trained in the field about which one is speaking. But when Dyson starts talking about fields he knows little about like biology and climate science, he makes an ass of himself quite regularly.

  17. MadScientist
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s so disappointing that a mathematician like Dyson doesn’t seem to bother to read the past 40 years of literature on the subject and see how the numbers are all for the position that he’s against and all against the position that he’s for. It doesn’t surprise me though; he’s been doing that a lot in the past 20 years – taking a stand without bothering to learn about the subject. For example, there are his magic artificial trees that soak up carbon dioxide so global warming isn’t really going to be a problem. I wonder if people can catch his craziness (or is it just laziness?) – I still hear a lot of buzz about “geoengineering”.

  18. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like Dyson is “Cramming for the final,” as Dawkins might say.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      I think Dawkins was quoting that line from Bob May (not certain, as it was anonymous beyond the Aussie accent).

  19. the Siliconopolitan
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    He’s not good at biology generally. He’s a techno-utopian who thinks that we can improve trees through genetic engineering, so we don’t have to do anything about carbon emissions.

    At least he’ll be dead soon.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      He’s a techno-utopian who thinks that we can improve trees through genetic engineering, so we don’t have to do anything about carbon emissions.

      Is there some reason to think we can’t improve trees through genetic engineering (or won’t be able to so in the reasonably near future)? Even if such trees could not provide a complete solution to the problem of carbon emissions, they might be a significant part of the solution.

      • the Siliconopolitan
        Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        Photosynthesis has had a coupla thousand million years to get good at what it does. We’re still only just scratching the surface on how it works in details.

        It seems not just arrogant to assume that we can retroëngineer and improve the process just like that. But more importantly it’s irresponsible and unethical to suggest that we just sit around and wait for that to happen, rather than take action that can help now – or could have if we had started thirty years ago when Sagan told us to.

        Still, advocating that SCIENCE! will save us if only we wait, is little different from praying.

        Alternatively, if engineering solves everything, why hasn’t Dyson built as a Dysonsphere to take us off oil yet?

        • Gary W
          Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          Photosynthesis has had a coupla thousand million years to get good at what it does. We’re still only just scratching the surface on how it works in details.

          On the contrary, we know exactly how photosynthesis works in details. We have been genetically engineering plants for hundreds of years to improve them for our purposes (greater yields, greater drought tolerance, greater resistance to pests, etc.). So why is it “arrogant to assume” that we can genetically engineer trees to improve their carbon uptake?

    • Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      “At least he’ll be dead soon.

      You think that’s a good thing?

  20. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins responds on Twitter:

    Freeman Dyson is in the tradition of Lord Kelvin & Fred Hoyle: physicists who foolishly barge into biology & pull rank.

  21. Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my rebuttal to Dyson: http://adnausi.ca/post/37612919387

    He should stick to physics. His game theory and biology seem lacking. There isn’t a single argument for group selection in his diatribe.

  22. Posted December 10, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Dyson did some good work in physics—decades ago. The new paper on the Prisoner’s Dilemma (written jointly with Bill Press) is interesting. But he is a good example of not doing well out of his field. He is a known global-warming “sceptic”, for example (I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a denier, but he has drawn the wrong conclusion from the data).

  23. Dominic
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    The Scientific American special I just got on human evolution has this Nowak article
    Clearly he does not understand his critics.

  24. Howard Kornstein
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    All I can say is that it is extremely depressing that someone of Dysons great mathematical capabilities seems not to have bothered in the least to have read even the most elementary literature on the subject of Evolutionary Game Theory before spouting off on the subject himself. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Prisoners Dilemma game analysis is absolutely NOT limited to “individual competition”. It models STRATEGY which can exist at either individual or group levels. In a similar fashion the “extortion” strategy he quotes is an utterly absurd concept for any game theoretic analysis, as it is no more than an “I always win no matter what” outcome, which makes any treatment my game theory to be utterly superfluous. I am not in any way opposed to people outside of a field adding a new perspective on the subject, but it behoves them to try to avoid making a total fool of themselves when doing so.

  25. NoAstronomer
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “The fitness of Alice and Bob is reduced to zero because their species made a bad choice long ago, putting on weight and forgetting how to fly.”

    Is Dyson seriously suggesting that the dodo’s ancestors should have had the foresight to remember how to fly because if they didn’t a million years* in future humans would arrive and massacre the entire population?

    Do we have minutes from the relevant committee meeting(s)?

    I’m sorry to cast aspersions on someone with Dyson’s credentials but this is positively Pythonesque.


    * Guessing at a number because I don’t have any information on when dodo’s lost the ability to fly.

  26. kelskye
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


  27. Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Notwithstanding the fact that he did some valid science once upon a time, Freeman Dyson is a crank, taking decidely unscientific positions on evolution, global warming, and other topics.

  28. jcm
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of this comic: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2556

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